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The Asiatic Mode of Production

Civilisation developed differently in different places. So far as we know, it arose first in the Nile delta of Egypt and in Mesopotamia (in what is now Iraq), though recent discoveries suggest it may also have developed independently in India and in South-East Asia at around the same time.

In both Egypt and Mesopotamia the ruling class seems to have sprung from the elevation of a stratum of priests, rather than chiefs, above the rest of society. This is because the priests had the leisure to develop a calendar, allowing them to foretell the coming of the Nile floods, and arithmetic to develop the centrally planned irrigation works which first produced a massive surplus.

The interest of Egyptian priests in maths and astronomy was thus not accidental, but rooted in the requirements of production.

Because of the requirements of planned irrigation, as Marx explains: "The communal conditions for real appropriation through labour, such as irrigation systems (very important among the Asian peoples), means of communication, etc., will then appear as the work of the superior entity--the despotic government which is poised above the small communities."

The Asiatic state which was not accountable in any way to the village communities, will feel entitled to appropriate the surplus as a tribute. This tribute is exacted through state ownership of the land: "...the integrating entity which stands above all these small communities may appear as the superior or sole proprietor, and the real communities therefore only as hereditary possessors.''

The villages were largely self-sufficient, rendering tribute to the Asiatic despotism in order for the "general conditions of production '' (irrigation, etc.) to be maintained. Handicrafts and agriculture were combined within each village. The dispersed villages were unable to organise effectively against their exploitation, so the whole system was very resistant to change.

This is what Marx and Engels meant when they said that such societies were "'outside history''. India, for instance, was invaded by one set of conquerors after another, but none of these political changes reached beneath the surface.

The Ptolemies, Greek successors of Alexander the Great, who came from a society where private property in land was at the root of their social system, left the system as they found it when they conquered Egypt. After all they were very satisfied with the revenues it provided them.

It was only after thousands of years, when British capitalism conquered India and strove to introduce private property in land in order to destroy the unity of native agriculture and handicrafts, and develop the preconditions for capitalism, that the Asiatic mode of production was finally destroyed. The result was the decline of the irrigation systems and a series of horrible famines throughout the nineteenth century.

The Asiatic mode of production saw the first development of class society, though retaining certain features of primitive communism, such as collective tilling of the soil. It raised production to a higher level than it had ever been before, and then stagnated.

Thus, in vast areas of the globe, there arose a form of society completely different from anything seen in Western Europe. Slavery was known, but it was not the dominant mode of production. In contrast with western feudalism, the surplus was extorted by the central state rather than by landlords.

Once civilisation was established and maintained, it was bound to radiate its effects all around it, whether through war or trade. Egypt was always dependent on outside areas for trade, thus stimulating the advance of civilisation in Crete and thereby giving an enormous impetus to the trading communities on the Greek coast to develop. Here civilisation found relations of production--private land-ownership providing an unlimited spur to private enrichment--which could take humanity forward again.